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BBC Proms 2011: Highlights

Posted in BBC Radio 3, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Pianist Lang Lang, described by BBC Proms director Roger Wright as “arguably the best known classical artist in the world”, will become the first artist ever to perform at both the Proms in the Park and the Royal Albert Hall on the same night.

Classical music meets comedy at the Proms for the first time. Tim Minchin, the Australian performer, presents an evening of music and laughs with Sue Perkins, cabaret duo Kit and The Widow, pianist Danny Driver, soprano Susan Bullock and the BBC Concert Orchestra.

Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra will take requests from the crowd in a highly unusual late night Prom. The audience will choose from a list of up to 300 pieces, none of which the orchestra has rehearsed.

The Spaghetti Western Orchestra will use rubber gloves and coat hangers to perform extracts from Sergio Leone film soundtracks. Roger Wright, controller of BBC Radio 3 and the director of the Proms, called them “five cracking musicians”.

Havergal Brian’s vast Gothic Symphony which has been rarely performed since it was composed in the 1920s will be played on 17 July when the 1,000 musicians required – including two orchestras and 10 choirs – are marshalled. Wright said: “Once we have fitted in the performers there will be hardly any room for the audience.”

Rossini’s William Tell is another work hardly ever performed. The opera lasts nearly five hours. Audiences will have a rare chance to hear this gripping story of Swiss nationalism conducted by the Royal Opera House music director, Antonio Pappano.

I can’t go on …


Giacomo Meyerbeer: Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Meyerbeer – like Halévy, Auber, and several other contemporaries – has mostly disappeared into a black hole. Even in France he is mostly ignored (although he worked primarily in France, he was German by birth).

Richard Wagner had personal differences with Meyerbeer (mainly rooted in private jealousies that Meyerbeer’s music was so successful by comparison to his own works at the time – and his perilous financial position for much of his life). However, this does not completely explain the disappearance of Meyerbeer’s works from the repertoire in the 20th century, which seems to be also related to fad and fashion. It’s the entire genre of French grand opera which has fizzled out.

It can be claimed – but without any real justification – that Meyerbeer and Halévy were discriminated against as Jews, but this doesn’t explain why Auber (who had been enormously popular) has dropped off the radar entirely … why Gounod’s works are rarely performed (except for Faust) … why Bizet’s other operas (except Carmen – does anyone even remember them, except for their overtures?) are never staged … why Delibes is utterly ignored … why even Massenet is relegated to the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy League.

For me, I’m afraid, the axe-grinding excuse of anti-semitism doesn’t explain any of this … there are too many non-Jewish composers in the same genre who are ignored too. Nor does the word of Wagner, which is a red herring – what opera manager takes Wagner’s views into account when programming a season nowadays?

In short, Meyerbeer’s French grand opera is clearly out of fashion these days. Vast amounts of utterly bloated bombast, a dearth of melodic imagination, and the most ludicrously melodramatic plots, reedemed by the odd inspired moment and a certain dramatic sense. L’Africaine is probably the best (or least bad) and has a few genuinely striking sections. Robert le Diable, the opera that truly established his reputation, was a massive success in the Paris of the July Monarchy; nowadays it works as an unintentional comedy (try the scene in Act 3 with a chorus of dead nuns rising out of their coffins). There’s a pretty good section on Meyerbeer in Charles Rosen’s The Romantic Generation; also worth reading for those interested to know more about the composer are Jane Fulcher’s The Nation’s Image: French Grand Opera as Politics and Politicized Art, Heinz and Gudrun Becker’s Giacomo Meyerbeer: A Life in Letters, and Mark Everist’s collection of essays Giacomo Meyerbeer and Music Drama in Nineteenth Century Paris.

The whole genre of French grand opera (encompassing the works of Meyerbeer, Halévy, Auber and some of the later works of Rossini, and becoming influential on the work of Donizetti, Verdi and even Wagner) is certainly of great interest to those wanting to understand better the cultural history of the period; the works are worth hearing a few times, but I’d be very surprised if they would stand up to the numbers of repeated performances and productions that would lead to their being incorporated into modern standard repertory.

Joyce DiDonato

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

Claire Black of the Scotsman meets American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in Milano (click the link for the full article):

Pop stars, soap stars, Big Brother contestants – it seems that anyone can now be a diva as long as they behave badly enough, wear high enough heels or can warble through, auto-tuner and amplification-assisted, of course, a clutch of crossover classics. But it wasn’t always like this.

Before being in a relationship with Gethin Jones was enough to earn you access to the “d-word”, membership of that exclusive club depended not only on acting like a goddess, but sounding like one too. True opera greats – Maria Callas, Leontyne Price, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf – were remote, grand, impossibly glamorous and certainly not just one of the gals. Soaring vocal skills and awe-inspiring technique were one part of the package, tantrums and hissy fits, or choosing seven of your own records as your Desert Island Discs (as Schwarzkopf did) made up the rest. Their voices may have been sweet but they were not. More than a little attitude has always been part of being a diva.

DiDonato is a perfect example of a new generation of opera singers whose talent and commitment to their art is unquestionable, but who also manage to shake free from tradition, whether that is by writing a blog (named cheekily in DiDonato’s case Yankee Diva) or by mixing more established repertoire with contemporary works – DiDonato won praise in the role of Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie’s opera of Dead Man Walking, which she’ll perform again next year in Houston. She might be celebrated as one of the finest interpreters of Rossini, but a quick glance through her biography reveals that initially it was for Broadway or a career as a teacher that she was aiming, until at the age of 19 she discovered opera.

It all means that standing at the stage door of Teatro alla Scala in Milan, where I’m to meet DiDonato before the evening’s performance of The Barber of Seville, I’m not entirely sure what to expect. I don’t have to wait long to find out. Arriving conspicuously on time, DiDonato is alone, no chauffeur, no assistants, no-one to fetch soya lattes or carry her Blackberry. She is quietly spoken and friendly. And she’s wearing jeans.

Her dressing room doesn’t hold any diva-ish touches either. There are no bouquets of flowers, no bottles of champagne chilling in ice buckets. The only furniture is a stool where DiDonato perches and a small, hard sofa which is mine. The sole luxury is air-conditioning to keep out the sweltering heat.

DiDonato may garner ecstatic reviews for her voice, but it’s also her persona, the sense that she’s down to earth and just like the rest of us that has won her many fans. Partly this is down to her blog, updated remarkably regularly, where she shares backstage chit-chat, photographs that she’s taken and, of course, gives an unmediated glimpse into the life of an international opera singer, a life that’s a lot less glamorous than many might imagine.


Joyce DiDonato breaks a leg at Royal Opera House

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